I am in the midst of trying to figure out what in the world I really need in terms of a support upgrade for my camera. A while ago, I purchased a lovely 300mm AF-S f/4 Nikkor lens, and, although the lens isn’t heavy or long enough to mandate tripod/monopod use in all circumstances, I am definitely running into some common situations where it would be helpful. One in particular is shooting out the passenger side window of the car, when I’m in the driver’s seat. Doing that hand-held quickly proved to be totally impossible at any shutter speed, due to the need to cross my left arm all the way across my body, to the point where that shoulder has virtually no leverage at all, and that’s the hand that supports the lens, in Nikon’s decidedly non-ambidextrous design. My left arm just shakes too much in that position. If I twist in the other direction, though, to shoot out the driver’s window, that works fine because now the left arm has plenty of leverage, and I can even brace my elbow on the armrest on the door. Unfortunately, there are about ten times as many good shots out the passenger side as out the driver’s side. (And if I lived in the UK, Australia, or some other country where people drive on the left, then this would not be an issue at all, because the passenger window would be on the left, not the right!)
For lack of a better immediate solution, I’ve been using an old tripod as a makeshift support, in order to alleviate the problem. It’s not stable enough to qualify as a “real” tripod support, because it’s not sturdy enough for that, but it can function as a substitute “arm”, meaning I still need to keep shutter speeds above 1/500, as I would for hand-held shots. It’s better than nothing, but I am still having problems. I am unsure of the source of the problems, but I suspect engine vibrations being magnified through the car seat, and further through the flimsy, wobbly legs of the tripod. These vibrations then cause problems for getting the lens focused correctly in some circumstances, due to the image moving enough that the focusing sensor is unable to get a perfectly accurate reading. At least, that is my theory.
I’m not sure what to do about it, because I need to be able to shoot that way, and it’s also very useful to be able to creep along in the car without having to start and stop the engine multiple times. I question whether any amount of money spent on a tripod setup would solve the problem. It might, if I was able to set it up so that one leg wasn’t braced on the passenger seat. If the springs in the passenger seat really are acting as an amplifier for the engine vibrations, then yes, a different tripod, one with more configurable and sturdy legs might actually help, so I can brace all three of them on a solid part of the car. Such a tripod would be useful for other things as well. If it doesn’t do the trick in the car, though, then I don’t think any rigid solution would work. I would need something that would directly compensate for those vibrations, such as some kind of steady-cam gimbal setup, or other type of shock-absorbing device. Maybe a great big pillow would be the thing. :) I actually did see one person using something like that with a big-assed telephoto (looked like a 400mm f/2.8) several weeks ago, while shooting from his car. I’d have to prop the pillow on top of something. Hmm. Come to think of it, what I was initially doing was using the tripod as a brace for my elbow, rather than setting it up all the way. I’d extend one leg to rest on the floor or some solid surface, then angle the top end of the tripod so I could brace my left elbow against it, thus providing the support that I couldn’t get from overextended shoulder muscles. Maybe I should just go back to doing that! However, the problem was that it was extremely clumsy, and I would often spend so much time messing around with it that whatever bird I was seeing was long gone by the time I got the tripod/elbow combination situated correctly.
I probably need a more workable solution, so I have been thinking of acquiring some kind of fairly normal tripod that would be suitable for bird shots with the 300mm f/4. It’s not a huge lens, probably comparable in size and weight to a standard 70-200 f/2.8, meaning it’s actually somewhat small compared to the big telephotos. I may add a 1.5x or 1.7x teleconverter someday, for shooting either from inside the car or out. I’m also going to want to use it for closeup shots next spring, although not from the car. I am unsure at this point if a monopod would be better for use when I’m outside of the car. Luckily, from research I’ve done so far, the main expense appears to be the head, clamp and plates, which can be interchanged between a monopod and a tripod.
The head would have to be a fairly nice ball head. I’m considering the Wimberly Sidekick to go with the head, although for the time being I’ve decided to wait and see how well a regular ball head works. The main reason for this is that I found a demo video of the Sidekick, and the thing is larger than I expected, making me think it might be overkill for my lens. Another option would be a panning ball head as opposed to a simple ball head. The panning ball head allows panning on the top part of the head, right by the clamp, which means that the tripod legs don’t have to be level in order to pan horizontally. That seems like it would be extremely convenient, however a panning head is substantially more expensive. Also, I am unsure whether that feature would be necessary if I got the Sidekick, which means I need to go watch that video again. ;) I’d also need to get a lens plate and an L-plate for the camera, both for mounting onto the ball head (or the Sidekick). I’m only considering ball heads that feature an Arca-Swiss style clamp.
For the tripod itself, I am a bit torn. I was looking hard at the Manfrotto 055XPROB, which is definitely within my price range and seems to be a pretty nice piece of equipment. I do have some reservations about the sideways capability of the center post, though. Supposedly, this can create stability issues, and there’s also the question of whether I would even need that sideways leaning feature. Manfrotto has a similar tripod with just a traditional up-and-down center post, the 055XB, but, unfortunately, the retailer I was planning on using doesn’t carry that model! That would be a minor quibble, except there’s enough variation in prices between retailers that having to go elsewhere would (apparently) cost me an additional $20, even with the simpler design! I may also need a shorter center column. Those can be had for about $30, if I remember right.
For the ball head, I’m looking at the Really Right Stuff BH-40, either with the panning clamp, or with the substantially cheaper, but less convenient full-sized screw-knob clamp.
So, what’s that boil down to in terms of cost?
For the legs, if I manage to find the Manfrotto 055XB carried by someone who’s asking a good price, it should come to roughly $155. That’s about $20 cheaper than some places are asking. Then the ball head would be either $356 with the standard clamp or $515 (!) with the panning clamp. The plates could also be obtained from Really Right Stuff. An L-plate for the camera would come to $125, and a plate for the lens would be $55. If I wanted to skimp a bit, I could initially skip the L-plate and just get the one for the lens….actually, since I’m thinking about upgrading camera bodies, I could save some money and just wait to get the L-plate for the new body. In fact, I could skip all of this plate stuff for now and just get a ball head with a platform (no clamp), then add the panning clamp later. That’s one nice feature of the Really Right Stuff heads–the clamps and platforms are interchangeable.
However, assuming I go with the regular style clamp ball head, I’m looking at $566, including the tripod and a plate for the lens.
That’s pretty steep, considering just a few hours ago I blew more than that on car repairs. :(